TIJUANA, Mexico – In the residential hills of Mexico’s sixth-largest city, a place known as Anexa Miramar stands out — and not in a good way.
Despite a glorious view of the Pacific Ocean and coastline all the way to Coronado Shores, a nearby street leading into a barrio has the stench of sewage emanating from a gray torrent pouring out of a manhole and gushing down the middle of a street during a late January morning.
The sewer water spills into a trash-filled arroyo, makes its way to the Tijuana River and empties into the ocean.
It’ll take a few days, but human waste and pathogens likely will ride ocean currents to the pristine beach at Coronado, where effluent meets the affluent.
The phenomenon occurs with mind-boggling frequency, especially every time it rains, and just last week a ruptured Mexico pipeline caused millions of gallons of raw sewage to gush into San Diego County.
Yet, the quandary is not new.
Alarm bells have gone off from the United States and Mexican governments since at least 1934, when the two sides agreed to cooperate over the “Tijuana River sewage problem,” records show.
Decades later, effluvium from overtaxed and outdated Mexican sewer systems has continued to surge onto San Diego County shores.
In 1988, according to a San Diego Reader article that year, experts warned that unmitigated releases of raw sewage would exceed 100 million gallons per day by the turn of the century, rendering San Diego County’s shoreline unusable from the border to Coronado.
Then, in 2017, a monstrous spill dumped more than 143 million gallons of raw sewage into the Tijuana River, polluting the ocean and creeping into Coronado.
Today, bright yellow “SEWAGE CONTAMINATED WATER” signs pepper the beaches of Coronado, closing access to locals and hurting tourism for a city that hosts 2 million visitors annually.
Even worse, the sewage-related pathogens sicken hundreds of people each summer day.
According to a computer simulation conducted by Falk Feddersen, an oceanography professor at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institute, some 34,300 people each year are likely sickened by the contamination at Imperial Beach alone.
Those affected include not just lifeguards and recreationists, but U.S. Border Patrol agents working in the Tijuana River and Navy SEAL trainees along the coast.
“It affects everyone,” said Chris Harris, a former Border Patrol agent who was sent to an emergency room with large red splotches on his arms from sewer contamination prior to retiring in June 2018. “And, it’s still bad.”
“It affects everyone…and, it’s still bad.”Former U.S. Border Patrol agent Chris Harris
Harris said he became gravely ill from coming into contact with brown effluent while arresting two illegal immigrants, and that there are “big chunks of the year” the SEALS can’t train off their base in Coronado because the water is polluted.
David Gibson, who leads the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, said Navy officials have expressed frustration for more than a decade in stakeholder meetings about the sewage altering or postponing SEAL training.
Kevin Dixon, a Navy spokesman, did not respond to several requests for comment.
With this problem reoccurring for decades, one would think there’s a simple answer: Just fix Tijuana’s sewage infrastructure.
But, after nearly a century of political rhetoric, international negotiations and litigation, the contamination only has worsened.
Finally, last year, civil settlements were reached in a trio of environmental lawsuits against the International Boundary and Water Commission, an entity formed in 1889 to resolve boundary and water treaties between the U.S. and Mexico.
Authorities on both sides of the border announced a grand plan: American and Mexican taxpayers would be spending a half-billion dollars or more to rehabilitate public works projects in Tijuana and to renovate the strained 75-acre South Bay International Wastewater Treatment plan just north of the border by San Ysidro.
However, what wasn’t clearly spelled out is noteworthy: It may take at least 3 years to break ground on the new plant, officials told The Coronado News, and the price tag may be much higher than amounts publicly disclosed.
Further, so far, only a portion of the required funding has been allocated, and political gamesmanship in Congress delayed by two years the transfer in December of $300 million from the Environmental Protection Agency to the IBWC to begin wastewater work in the Tijuana River Valley.
Meanwhile, in Anexa Miramar, the simplicity that seems commonsensical is, in fact, complicated.
Single hose for 29 families
In Coronado, and nearly every other American city, residents expect a steady stream of clean water to instantly flow from the tap.
They also expect toilets to flush into wastewater lines leading to a treatment system.
But that hasn’t happened in Anexa Miramar, roughly 24 miles south of Coronado, since 2015, when part of the barrio was cut off after a hillside gave way, hinting at the city’s sketchy planning and regulation.
At least 19 houses tumbled into a canyon. The mudslide severed utility lines and wiped out garbage truck access.
Today, residents from 29 homes share water from a single, black, garden-style hose.
Further, some have no trash service, which explains why the canyon resembles a giant dumpster. And crime in the area is such a concern that Mexican National Guard troops patrol nearby.
“They (city officials) do not solve anything.”-Guadalupe Hernandez Ovalle, a 70-year-old Tijuana resident.
“It is a big problem, because since the landslide we have had no water pressure,” said 70-year-old Guadalupe Hernandez Ovalle, speaking in Spanish. “They (city officials) do not solve anything.”
Hernandez Ovalle and others say they have pleaded with municipal leaders for improved public services, but nothing happens.
Government officials say they don’t have money or manpower to meet the burgeoning needs in an urban center that according to MacroTrends, a U.S. data research firm, has more than doubled its population since 1996 to more than 2.2 million.
San Diego, by comparison, is America’s eighth largest city with nearly 1.4 million people.
Hernandez Ovalle is originally from the Mexican state of Sinaloa, and has lived in Colonia Anexa Miramar for 43 years.
She and her husband built their home in this neighborhood from the ground up.
Hernandez Ovalle said that there are two visible hose pipes that lie right outside her entrance door.
The green one is for sewage that runs through the neighborhood from the top of the mountain, and the black one is meant to supply water for her and 28 other families.
The damaged pipes have affected her quality of life because when water fails to run or the stench from the sewage hose becomes unbearable, she almost immediately calls the “local office” in Tijuana.
But, Tijuana officials only use a band aid approach, she said, fixing the tubes but nothing else.
Hernandez Ovalle said because there is no sewage system, the neighborhood has been forced to live in the same manner as four decades ago.
“When we came here, there was no water, there was no electricity, there was nothing.” she said.
In the late 1980s, she said water was put in, but eventually the underground pipes broke in 2015, and there’s been no effort to repair or replace them.
“I have put up with a lot, that the hose should be underground,” she said.
Hernandez Ovalle remains hopeful that change will come from Proyecto Fronterizo de Educación Ambiental, a grassroots environmental organization that works to protect Tijuana’s ocean, streams, and coasts.
She said the group is working to convert the trash-filled canyon into a local park.
Until these changes begin, however, the hoses highlight the city’s failure to meet the residents’ health and living needs.
Colonia Anexa Miramar cannot expect the pipes to be repaired any time soon, according to a joint statement from two Mexican officials.
Secretary for the Water Management, Treatment and Protection Agency for the State of Baja California (SEPROA) José Armando Fernández Samaniego and Director of the State Commission of Public Services of Tijuana (CESPT) Víctor Daniel Amador Barragán said the 2015 landslide compromised the community.
Further, they said, “various setbacks of the Tijuana City Council” have delayed repair work in the area.
Decaying, leaking pipelines
Tijuana’s growth was spurred by immigrants stymied while striving to get into the United States, and by a proliferation of maquiladoras that pay as little as $12 a day to assemble and export goods.
The population boom, in turn, spawned housing shortages that led developers to go on building binges – often with minimal oversight.
Multiply the more than 2 million people living in Tijuana times the number of times they use the toilet each day and the magnitude of the problem becomes clear.
Especially when Baja California officials say 10% of the city’s households do not even have sewage hookups, according to a 2022 San Diego Union-Tribune report.
On top of that, Tijuana’s pipelines are decaying and leaking, the factories are emptying toxic wastes into the system, and existing treatment plants, pumps and holding ponds cannot handle the volume, said local environmental leader Margarita Diaz.
Thus, most of the contaminated water that arrives on Coronado’s shoreline occurs mainly in two different seasons:
In summer, north-moving ocean currents carry untreated human wastes – along with bacteria, viruses and other pathogens – up the coast from a defunct sewage treatment facility at a place called Punta Bandera, six miles south of Tijuana.
The overtaxed San Antonio de los Buenos plant discharges an estimated 55 million gallons per day.
In the wintertime, when rains swell the Tijuana River and adjacent arroyos, sewage infrastructure gets swamped.
The South Bay International Wastewater Treatment Plant near San Ysidro is designed to handle an average of 25 million gallons of sewage a day, but it cannot cope with the volume.
Therefore, according to the EPA, an average 109 million gallons of sewage mixed with storm runoff flow into the ocean each day during wet weather, contaminating beaches.
Exasperation in Coronado
Count Coronado residents Brian Anderson and Dave Gillingham among those exasperated with the ongoing problem.
Anderson, who served nine years in the Marines and lives near the Hotel del Coronado, said he refuses to go into the ocean after rain storms.
“It’s disgusting water…and you don’t want to take your dog to the dog beach and get sick.”-Coronado resident and former Marine Brian Anderson
“It’s disgusting water,” said Anderson, walking his black Border Collie-Labrador mix, Sierra, near the beach after a mid-December downpour.
“And you don’t want to take your dog to the dog beach and get sick.”
Gillingham runs Coronado Island Realty and has lived on the island on and off since 1966.
He said the problem is “just awful.”
“It’s a persistent problem. We end up the victims, and we are not causing it,” Gillingham said. “The beaches have been closed more (in 2022) than in the past…If they need to go over and help build the plant, it’s to our benefit.”
The unsatisfying truth is that this is more than just an engineering problem, and attempts to fix it invariably get drowned in a cesspool of collateral issues.
For roughly 100 years, complications of international law, public health, funding, politics, environmental regulation, water rights, urban planning and culture have stymied or stalled almost every effort.
The obstacles are like a Gordian knot, interconnected and seemingly impossible to untangle.
Just one example: A decades-long flow of migrants to the border, coupled with poverty and housing shortages, has made the normally dry Tijuana River channel a haven for the homeless, especially beneath bridges.
On a recent visit in Tijuana, Diaz, the environmentalist leader and director of Proyecto Fronterizo de Educación Ambiental, watched birds swoop and land in the gray water before muttering ruefully, “When you see the seagulls, you know it’s poop.”
Diaz, whose organization works to protect Tijuana’s ocean streams, said the homeless rely on river water for bathing, but also add to the human waste.
Because many of them struggle with drug addiction, diseases such as hepatitis proliferate. And, when rains transform the river into a sewage torrent, pathogens are swept into ocean currents heading north.
Goals seemed simple
Still, of all the obstacles, bureaucratic inertia appears to be the most intransigent.
Tijuana’s sewage mess is a binational problem between sovereign nations.
The river not only divides countries, but swerves in and out of each. That means every proposed remedy must survive a double-whammy of treaties, laws, government agencies, regulations and funding requirements.
On the U.S. side, a partial list of key players includes Congress, the State Department, the EPA, IBWC, Army Corps of Engineers, Fish and Game Department, California Regional Water Quality Control Board, the cities of San Diego, Coronado and others as well as a plethora of other agencies.
Beyond those are so-called environmental stakeholders such as the Sierra Club, Surfrider Foundation and construction companies.
Most of those major players have mirror agencies and organizations in Mexico.
Working together involves different languages, laws and cultures. Disputes about how to address the sewage problem lead to political infighting, lawsuits and paralysis.
In a 2003 San Diego Law Review article, attorney Ross Campbell summed up the Tijuana sewage conundrum:
“At first glance, reaching the basic goals of treating the sewage and eliminating the risks to human health seem simple. However, diplomatic, technological, political, and legal disputes have resulted from every effort to resolve the issue. Such disputes have delayed progress and have ultimately prevented the implementation of an effective solution.”
Historic pattern of failure
Meanwhile, the IBWC, which by treaties and laws is considered the lead agency in dealing with border dilemmas, has by all accounts a checkered history.
Maria-Elena Giner, IBWC commissioner, conceded that her agency has struggled to prevent, monitor, report and clean up sewage discharges.
She declined to identify culprits, and insisted the commission and EPA are now on course to break the historic pattern of failure.
“I have many fingers of blame on that issue,” Giner added.
The daughter of an immigrant and the first Latina to hold her post, Giner previously served as general manager of the Border Environment Cooperation Commission developing environmental infrastructure along the U.S.-Mexico line with the North American Development Bank. (The two entities have since merged.)
Giner said she thought Tijuana’s sewage issues were being addressed when she left that position in 2017 to do a dissertation on the impact of sanitation on public health.
Then, in 2021, President Joe Biden appointed her to the IBWC and she discovered almost nothing had been accomplished and wondered: “What happened?”
Coming Next: Bitter feuding, wasted money, treaty violations. A history of broken promises.